|Clea Alsip and Kathleen Turner. Photo: T. Charles Erickson|
By Lauren Yarger
Someone should just put this play out of its misery. Even having multi-talented Kathleen Turner as its star and director can’t save The Killing of Sister George which is breaking in the new seats at Long Wharf’s mainstage theater.
About 20 minutes into this early 1960s play by Frank Marcus (adapted here by Jeffrey Hatcher) about a British radio soap opera star who fears her character is going to be killed off, we’re wondering what the heck this mess of lesbianism, domination/submission and really bad accents is really all about. At the end of Act One, a lack of any real plot and a bunch of unlikable characters result in our no longer caring.
When the play debuted on Broadway in 1964 following a run on London’s West End, it was nominated for the Tony and snagged the best actress award for Beryl Reid. In fact, it was so successful, a movie version of it followed in 1968 containing racy material not included in the play (earning the film an X rating). Let’s just say that I read all of that information in the press notes with disbelief (concluding that 1964 must have been a drought year for plays on Broadway), along with a reference to Turner’s viewing the piece as comedy. It seems totally devoid of humor except for a few lines.
Perhaps lesbians and S&M were more shocking back in 1964, but in this modern age, particularly when “50 Shades of Grey” is a best seller, a play needs something more than shock value from a half century ago to make it interesting. According to director’s notes in the program, Turner agreed and engaged Hatcher to adapt the script for a modern audience with emphasis on the emotional, rather than sexual relationship between the characters. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t work. Judge for yourself:
June Buckridge (Turner) is the star of “Applehurst,” a popular radio drama (audio snippets of which are heard thanks to sound design by John Gromada). She plays a motorcycle-driving, hymn-singing nurse named Sister George, but when the script suddenly calls for her to catch a cold, the actress discerns that this means the writers are going to kill off her character.
She confides her fears to her doll-collecting, child-like flat mate, Alice McNaught (Clea Aslip), a.k.a. Childie (though many of us audience members never clearly understood what her nickname was or other parts of the dialogue since Turner’s diction isn’t always sharp and Aslip is murdering a Scottish accent, apparently unaided by dialogue coach Deborah Hecht). Soon it becomes apparent that the two are more than just flat mates and that June enjoys humiliating and dominating the hapless girl.
Then BBC legend Mercy Croft (Betsy Aidem) stops by the flat (tackily decorated by designer Allen Moyer to match the frumpy clothes in which Jane Greenwood dresses Turner) to investigate an incident in which June supposedly assaulted two nuns in a taxi and sets terms for how the actress can make things right, pacify the mother superior and keep the story from ruining the show’s ratings.
Meanwhile, June wants to know what the future holds, so she asks her neighbor, Madame Xenia (Olga Merediz), who happens to be a clairvoyant, to visit. The vision is unsettling and soon June is plotting to keep her character alive while Childie enters into an alliance with Mercy that’s as much to save herself as her roommate’s job. Let’s just say that the curse-singing (Gromada composes), tarot-card-reading fortune teller seems to be the sanest person in the room.
Besides the really uninteresting plot (with a far-from-surprising conclusion), this play is in need of editing, even after the extensive rewrite it apparently received at the hand of Hatcher in his adaptation. In one scene, for instance, June is up at 4 am, unable to sleep because of her anxiety. Madame Xenia drops by with the script pages holding Sister George’s fate – at 4 am? And how convoluted that she would have had to sign for them to give her an excuse to bring them? Then Alice conveniently returns to the apartment to retrieve a forgotten bag just when Xenia leaves so that June can tell her what she has discovered. Really? At 4 am? And she just happened to leave her bag? Playwriting 101 red pen, please….
Turner’s talent can hardly be overshadowed by a bad role and it's always a treat to see live on stage here in Connecticut. She just is worthy of a better play.
The Killing of Sister George runs through Dec. 23; Tuesday at 7 pm; Wednesday and Sunday at 2 and 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm. Tickets $40-70:www.longwharf.org; 203-787-4282.